Fame is not a natural condition and it has no safety net
- Credit: AP
Performer and writer Martin Newell offers his own insight into the perils of the fame game
'Glass is all we're really made of and glass is all we'll ever be," Robyn Hitchcock, songwriter.
Up until I learned of her recent death I'd never heard of Caroline Flack. A television presenter, actress and dancer, London-born and Norfolk-bred, Caroline was 40 when she died. Social media has been partly blamed for causing her to take her own life. Facebook, Twitter et al, are convenient blame dogs. Many of those in other media quarters, hollering for social media's regulation, are actually being as self-righteous as the keyboard warriors and trolls whom they condemn.
Social media is the ideal bete noire for the Concerned Classes: quick to judge, vulgar in its accusations and crucially, anonymous. You know those crowds of hooded peasants in old horror films, who gather, holding burning brands and yelling outside the monster's castle? Well, that's social media. Or is it?
Fleet Street newspapers once ruled the roost , whenever a hate-fest needed cheer-leading. Who was it, after all, helped to drive Dr Stephen Ward to his fatal overdose during the 1963 Keeler case? It certainly wasn't social media. So the newspapers are blaming social media for Caroline Flack's despair? Well they would do. They, of course, have never hounded anyone over a cliff, have they?
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Long before the thundering organs of truth and justice, which Fleet Street liked pretending to be, there was the London Mob. Or the Paris Mob. Or any number of other mobs. People with no imagination don't usually have to be asked twice to drop everything and roar off on a witch hunt.
But far more dangerous than all of these things combined is fame itself. Fame is not a gown which sits either easily or gracefully upon most shoulders. As Mick Jagger once said, referring to Brian Jones, some people it doesn't suit at all. Fame, like cheap whiskey, is something that certain people should never go near. Fame, is as much a poison as an intoxicant, tolerance to its effects must be built up slowly.
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In times long before TV and the internet, there was very little instant fame. Would-be entertainers began on the lowest rung. They first learned to deal with ignominy and insult. For any delicate flowers it was akin to a hardening-off process. Next, the performer would play half-empty rooms and musty old halls before progressing to something grander. The process was long and arduous. Usually, by the time fame arrived, its recipient was more grounded. This way, after fame became national or even universal, its toxicity might have been ameliorated slightly by experience.
Nowadays, however, in the wake of a single TV talent show win, or overnight internet success, the media pack are all over their quarry like a Boxing Day hunt. What could possibly prepare any individual for such an onslaught? You wake up famous. You go to bed famous. You wash your famous face in the morning. You walk out of your famous door into the dazzling light. Then, the more of this stuff you drink, the crazier it gets, until finally, you discover that you can't remove the mask which you once put on for a laugh.
On a relatively-balanced person, even these aspects of fame might still be vaguely do-able. But should you ever break up with your partner, utter some non-PC indiscretion, lose a child, crash a car, or get yourself in a punch-up, woe betide you. For there will be no peace, no dignity, no fairness. They may even take away your livelihood.
Then you'll be famous-without-portfolio, an unguarded target, chucked to the mob outside the castle walls.
If you can survive all of that without killing yourself or falling apart, with luck you might eventually slink off. The pack soon finds new quarry and the world's prurient stare will move elsewhere. The problem is that some people, like poor Caroline - or like Terry Dene, one of the earliest English pop stars - are left smashed and broken.
Fame is not a natural condition. If you have ever been around it or had a quick sip from its frosted tumbler, you begin to realise it. Famous people become superstitious, collecting good luck charms and observing small rituals. The famous connect with new religions, or sometimes, return to earlier ones. Some become recluses, espousing worthy causes or funding animal refuges. Many of the famous develop drink or drug problems, which, if they survive, drive them to strict abstinence. Others still, after the departure of fame, marry the 'civilians' who helped return them to the normality which they now craved.
For the famous, there are no safety nets. But then most people who are famous were not victims in the first place, only volunteers. This doesn't make them any less human, however.
To those who stand gawping up at them the famous may resemble golden gods. But some of them are glass and it only takes one tap of a teaspoon before they shatter into fragments.
Be careful around them.